Wildlife Starscapes: Photographing at Night in Africa

You probably know the name: Will Burrard-Lucas. He’s famous for breaking the boundaries of wildlife photography and coming up with new, innovative ways to capture animals on camera. One of the first articles ever published on Nature TTL was a profile of Will and his work with BeetleCam, a robotic buggy that captures wide-angle images of lions and more.

It’s safe to say that the originally photos are no doubt impressive, but our collective jaw dropped when we saw his latest offerings from BeetleCam.

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Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia.

“The low-light capabilities of modern cameras allow us to photograph wildlife in ways that would previously have been impossible,” said Will. “Over the last year or so, I have pushed my cameras to the limits in order to take striking images of nocturnal African animals.

“My aim was to take images showing animals under the beautiful, starry sky — the night sky in Africa is simply spectacular! To achieve these shots, I would need a wide-angle lens and a ground-level perspective so that I could look up at the subject and have the sky as a backdrop. BeetleCam would be the perfect tool for this.”

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Hyena mother and cubs photographed with BeetleCam at night. Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia.

When we think of wildlife photography, it’s usually a fast shutter speed. Conversely, stars require a long exposure to allow the light to build up. This presented Will with a particularly obvious challenge.

“I was going to achieve these shots in a single exposure, in-camera. To expose the stars, I would need to use a high ISO and a shutter speed of around 10 to 15 seconds. The animal would be exposed by a flash at the beginning of the exposure.

“No animal would stay still for the duration of the exposure but, as long as there was no moonlight, it wouldn’t matter; if the animal moved after the flash the animal would just block out light from the stars but it wouldn’t otherwise show up. I had to use manual focus and judge the distance between the camera and subject by eye as there wasn’t enough light to rely on autofocus.”

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Lions under the Milky Way galaxy, in Liuwa Plain National Park.

Will continued, “Later, I used this same technique to photographs lions at twilight. The only difference here is that I reduced the exposure time to balance the brightness of the sky with the flash.”

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Lion (Panthera leo) Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia.

“The shot below is another of my favourites. The ‘ghosts’ appeared because the moon was up and it brightened the sky. Some of the hyenas moved after the flash and shadows formed when they paused to look at the camera.”

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When Will isn’t shooting with BeetleCam, that doesn’t stop him taking his camera out at night. Utilising is camera trap sensors, which he built himself, he was able to capture the nightlife at the local watering hole.

Porcupine, (Hystrix africaeaustralis) Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia.

Will also spent time directly behind the camera, taking photos of wildlife and the drastic weather conditions. “I was in Liuwa for the end of the long dry season and the start of the rains. With the rain came large herds of wildebeest,” said Will.

“Photographing animals in the rain at night gave me the opportunity to use another technique. I positioned an off-camera flash behind my subject and pointed it back towards the camera to backlight the raindrops. These shots were challenging because I had to place the flash and line up the shot without spooking the animals.”

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A young hyena in the rain at night. Rain drops illuminated by an off-camera flash. Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia.

“The rains were accompanied by some epic lightning storms so I set myself the challenge of photographing an animal in front of a bolt of lightning. One evening I noticed a huge storm approaching so I went in search of a suitable subject.

“I found a hyena and lined it up with the storm. I then took back-to-back long exposures hoping that a lightning bolt would eventually strike in the right spot and silhouette the animal. The hyena was moving so keeping it lined-up with the storm (again in the pitch darkness) was challenging but my perseverance was rewarded with the shot below.”

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So what next? Well, Will says there are “many other creative ways that remote cameras and camera traps can be used” to photograph wildlife at night. He promises to be exploring some of these in future projects, so stay tuned.

Will has a free guide to remote and camera trap photography which you can download on his website.


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